In the script, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a teenage boy seeks to integrate a surgeon into his broken family, but when the boy’s actions become increasingly sinister, the surgeon’s ideal life falls apart and he is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice. The film is inspired by the ancient Greek tragedy, Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides. Director Yorgos Lanthimos co-writes the script alongside Efthymis Filipou, his writing partner for his previous film, The Lobster. A24 acquired US distribution rights while Haut et Court acquired the French rights to the film. The Killing of a Sacred Deer premiered at Cannes in 2017, winning best screenplay. The film was released in the fall of 2017 with a box office haul of $4.7 million but no information on the budget has been released. The film debuted to positive reviews, garnering an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes. Interestingly, the screenplay is practically an exact representation of the finished film.
The script largely takes place in doors, with only 21.1% of scenes taking place outside. Much of the time spent indoors is shared between the hospital and Steven’s house, with the occasional appearance of Martin’s house. The majority of external scenes also remain close to the indoor locations, with only a scene or two at the beginning taking place in a different location entirely. There are 14 characters in the screenplay, with only about six characters that serve great importance—these being Steven, Anna, Martin, Kim, Bob, and Matthew. Perhaps a marker of Lanthimos’ idiosyncrasies, the film is 67.3% dialogue despite being a thriller. Much of the tension and many of the films reveals come through dialogue instead of action. Lanthimos plays with exposition by only revealing the workings of Martin’s game (and doing so all at once), while keeping everything else shrouded in mystery. The characters often know more than the audience, and we’re left to try and figure out who or what to trust. The Scriptonomics data sites scenes 21-25, 75-81, 52-62, and 34-43 as the significant scenes. While I agree that these scenes are significant, I find it odd that Martin’s reveal of how Steven’s family will die, which occurs at scene 47, is not among them. The entire conflict of the film comes into focus with this scene, making clear Steven’s helplessness and Martin’s villainy. Furthermore, Steven’s ultimate killing of his son, which occurs at scene 112, is also absent from the significant scenes. Instead the significant scenes pick out when Steven meets Martin’s mom, a scene which is certainly chilling, yet reveals little new information as its number 5 most significant. Scenes 75-81 I feel are also less significant than the two I mentioned as replacements, as the scene merely shows the kids coming home from the hospital, despite them being in the same condition.
While thrillers often contain more action than dialogue, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a bit more meditative. As an indie, the dialogue-heavy nature of the film feels at home. When looking at the dialogue versus action on a scene-by-scene basis, the aforementioned scene 47 stands out as one which particularly favors dialogue over action. Less than 18% of the scene contains any action writing, with Martin speaking for the majority of the time and Steven listening on in horror. Martin’s talkative nature truly comes across once you see that he only appears in 12.2% of the script, yet accounts for 25.4% of the dialogue. In this regard, Martin serves as a driving character, one which speaks more than they appear. A character like the doctor on the other hand, whose appearances fill 5.54% of the time, only has .104% of the dialogue. The doctor would be a supporting character. Bob is another interesting character to look at in this way, as he makes 9.96% of all appearances but only speaks 4.48% of the time. I would chalk this up to him being ill and crippled for the majority of the film, with his physical presence serving as a drive for the film rather than his dialectic or intellectual engagement with the other characters.
The idiosyncrasies of Lanthimos’ writing further comes across in the fact that action rarely peaks alongside dialogue, the only instances of this being scenes 69 and 86. Scene 69 shows the audience Martin’s true control over the illness he’s inflicting on Steven’s family, as he allows Kim to walk again for a short period. Scene 86 on the other hand, reveals that Steven has captured Martin and is keeping him tied up in their basement. Yet in these scenes, dialogue still prevails with a respective 72% and 59% of the scene. The only scenes with a decent amount of action without any dialogue are the final two, which showcase Steven’s method of deciding which family member to kill and then the quick silent resolution of the story. Words would be useless at this point, Martin has won.
Dialogue Breakdown by Character:
Number of Appearances by Top Characters:
Despite being a constant emotional presence and the main antagonist of the story, Martin is only listed as the third most important character, behind Steven’s wife Anna. While Anna is physically more present throughout the entire script, Lanthimos manages to make sure Martin’s villainy is woven throughout the runtime—even when he’s not on screen. As we can see through his dialogue, Martin has two large disappearances in the script: from scenes 31-45, and 53-72. Yet because he has set in motion the events of the story, and managed to make Kim still fall in love with him despite the horrible act he has committed, he is still very much a present character. I think Lanthimos cleverly increased Kim’s importance during Martin’s vacancies to help with his disappearance, and we can see her dialogue starts increasing more during scenes Martin is not around in. By linking the two characters, Martin’s presence is felt anytime Kim is on screen.
While A24 does not release the budgets of their films, I expect due to the nature of both the screenplay and the finished product that the budget would not have exceeded $1 million. Because the number of locations and cast members are kept to a minimum, the two biggest sources of expenses are immediately cut down. While there are several locations only used once, many of these are indoor scenes or establishing shots. Furthermore, the film contains few scenes requiring any sort of visual effects, and no scenes requiring any heavy visual effects. The biggest action moment is in the second to last scene and contains several gunshots from only one gun. Although the film did not reach the box office heights of A24’s largest releases, or even Lanthimos’ first A24 film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer wowed audiences and critics alike. While we are unable to know the true box office success without the budget, I’m sure the film at least broke even.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a tight script which translates perfectly to film. While very few changes were made, there weren’t any moments which required dramatic change. Because of how similar the finished product is, my only gripe with the screenplay is shared with the film. I feel the film starts on shaky ground due to an over-abundance of Lanthimos’ idiosyncrasies coming across in the dialogue which can occasionally feel overwritten, yet these concerns are quickly washed away as the films gears begin to turn. The unnatural dialogue becomes yet another character Lanthimos plays with, as sterile as the hospitals we spend so much of the runtime in.